Monday, April 13, 2015

Closer to the Moon: Romania’s Crime of the Century

Irony was usually lost on Communist apparatchiks. It was especially so in this case. The socialist authorities were completely baffled why a small band of former Party members would stage a daring armored car robbery for a few million worthless Romanian leu, at a time when everyone was desperately seeking hard foreign currency. Yet, the absurdity is the whole point for the disillusioned resistance heroes in Nae Caranfil’s Closer to the Moon (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

All the major facts of Moon are historically accurate, but the why’s remain a bit murky. However, Caranfil’s speculations are more than persuasive. They clearly carry the spirit of the truth, even if they cannot be verified by the participants, for reasons one could easily guess. At, one time, police inspector Max Rosenthal and his comrades were ardent Communists and heroes of the resistance. They also happened to be Jewish. The post-war years would have been disheartening enough as the Communist Party proceeded to betray their ideals, but to make matters worse, the group of friends have all largely lost their positions thanks to the Stalin-mandated anti-Semitic purges. Only Rosenthal still maintains his post, entirely due to the fact he is married to the shrewish daughter of his superior. However, he is dead set on a divorce, regardless of the repercussions.

Sadly, Yorgu Ristea, the academic, Razvan Ordel, the journalist, and Dumitru Dorneanu, the research scientists have even worse seats in the same boat. The outlook is nearly as bad for Rosenthal’s old flame, Alice Bercovich, who had been sent abroad to study, but was recalled under ominous circumstances. Unlike the others, she has a son to protect. Yet, against her better judgement, she gets caught up in Rosenthal’s armored car scheme. Conceived as an existential protest, they hope to spur their countrymen to start questioning the claims of the Communist government. Of course, one of the central pillars of its propaganda is the supposed abolition of crime in Romania.

Both the scheme and the punishment are so crazy they have to be true. Rosenthal and his comrades really did perpetrate the heist under the guise of an action movie shoot (it would have been the first in Romania, had it been real). Likewise, the government really did force the condemned prisoners to re-stage the crime for a massively ill-conceived propaganda film. With nothing to lose, the prisoners largely take over the production (aided and abetted by Virgil, the fictionalized apprentice cameraman). Desperate to learn why they did it and who else might be involved, Holban the frazzled bureaucrat, indulges their demands for champagne and caviar, hoping the truth will come out during an unguarded moment. Yet, the truth is all around him, if he could only see it.

Obviously, this story holds tremendous cinematic potential, which Caranfil fully exploits, but he also gives it all a darkly wry comedic twist. At times, it feels like The Lives of Others rewritten by a less manic Alan Ayckbourne, but viewers are constantly reminded of the impending finality. Indeed, Caranfil nicely balances the absurdist humor with the tragic fatalism.

The mostly British cast is particularly well suited to the film’s matter-of-factly sardonic tone, especially Mark Strong, who personifies world-weary dignity as Rosenthal. Vera Farmiga gets to exercise both her drama queen and sultry femme fatale chops as Bercovich, making the most of each. Eventually, Christian McKay will break out for his witty, sophisticated performances, including his work here as the disenchanted Ristea. Game of Thrones’ Harry Lloyd is blandly forgettable as Virgil, but his job is mostly to observe. However, David de Keyser adds real heart and gravitas to the film as Moritz, the camera man’s VOA-listening landlord. British television regular Anton Lesser might also do his career best as the politically vulnerable insomniac, Holban.

Moon bears witness to the crimes of Communism in an unusually droll and humanistic way. It is a finely crafted period production, recreating the space exploration-obsessed late 1950s (hence the title) in detail, but Marius Panduru’s cinematography often looks a little too sunny given the events in question. Regardless, it is a fascinating story (already the subject of at least one worthy Romanian documentary) brought to life by a distinctive cast. It also represents a rare opportunity to see excerpts from the re-enactment film, which the Party immediately locked away in a vault, upon its completion. Highly recommended for fans of heist and con films as well as prestige historicals, Closer to the Moon opens this Friday (4/17) in New York, at the IFC Center.